Five Stages of Speech and Language Development Before Baby's First Words

Disclaimer: Please note that this article discusses the typical stages and related age ranges of infant speech development. Not all children develop at the same rate, and there will be some overlap of each of these stages. If you have concerns about your baby’s speech and language development, you may want to have your baby’s hearing tested and seek the advice of a Speech-Language Pathologist.  

Many parents excitedly anticipate their baby’s first word, which typically occurs between nine months and one year old. By two, simple phrases emerge, and by three, you should hear longer phrases and sentences. At four-years-old, most children should be fully able to express themselves, though they will still make mistakes in their grammar use.

So what should parents do to help their baby learn to talk and to talk on time? As a speech-language pathologist, I often start by helping parents understand what they should expect – and at what approximate age. Children around the world typically follow the same developmental pattern as they work toward using their first word.

Stage 1 – Phonation

From birth through the first month, your baby will use sounds reflexively only – meaning crying, grunting, burping, coughing, and sneezing. They may also make non-reflexive sounds, especially sounds that resemble “m” or “n”. These sounds are not intentional attempts at communication just yet, but you will interpret them as specific messages.

With a trained ear, some parents can even begin to recognize the differences in their infant’s “pre-cry” – the fussing sounds they make before the big cry takes effect. When my little one was brand new, I remembered this video – a clip from Oprah I had seen well before I ever planned to be a mother. I cannot tell you how many times I watched it, often at 3:30 a.m., as I tried desperately to figure out what my baby wanted after I’d exhausted the “too hot – too cold – dirty diaper – hungry – gassy” cycle. 

During this stage, although sounds are purely reflexive, you will begin to set the foundation for language by responding to your baby’s needs and the sounds they make, and exposing them to your words and voice. 

Stage 2 – Cooing and Gooing

From roughly the second to third month, parents start to see new sounds emerging. Your baby gets far more entertaining as they find new sounds and even syllables. Two- to three-month-old babies start using vowel sounds to vocalize, as well as consonants made in the back of their mouth like /k/, /g/, and ‘ing’. They may start to combine consonants (C) and vowels (V) into CV and VC syllables like “ug” or “koo”.

To encourage your baby to make more noises, when they make a sound, do your best to imitate it, then wait. Make sure you get face-to-face with your baby, and wait until they make more sounds, which you will copy once again. By doing this, you’re not only bonding with your baby and teaching them that you are listening to what they have to say. You’re also setting the stage for the back and forth conversational exchanges that will come as your baby learns more language.

Stage 3 – Exploration and Expansion

From approximately four to six-months-old, your baby starts to use vocal play – playing with sounds – while they practice using the “articulators’ or parts of the mouth that make different speech sounds. You start to hear squeals, growls, yells, and ‘raspberries’ with /p, b, m/ sounds and trills using their tongue and lips. At this point the sounds your baby uses seem to change by the day or the week and they will start to use marginal babbling, using CV and VC syllable shapes to say things like “baaa” and “ummm”, though these are not yet real words. 

In this stage, parents can encourage their baby to keep up the chatter by listening to what baby says, copying, and waiting to see what sounds come out next. 

Stage 4 – Canonical Babbling

From months seven through nine, baby’s control over the sounds coming out of their mouth continues to improve. They still use the same CV syllable shapes, but the productions more closely matches adult-like timing. Reduplicated babbling starts, where baby uses the same syllable repeatedly – like “bababa” and “mamama”. 

By this stage, your infant is likely using a much larger variety of sounds in their babble, including short, quick sounds (“stops”) like /p, b, t, d, k, g/, longer vowel-like consonants (“glides”) like /w/ and ‘y’, and sounds with airflow coming out of the nose (“nasals”) like /n, m/. 

Vowel sounds expand to include more open, “lax” vowels like ‘eh’ in pen, ‘ih’ in pin, and ‘uh’ in pup. You should start hearing fewer sounds produced in the back of the mouth (e.g. /k, g/) as an increase in sounds produced in the front of the mouth emerge (e.g. /m, p, b/).

Parents often find copying their baby’s speech easier at this stage, and may start to wonder if what their baby is saying is an attempt at “real” words. We consider a word to be “real” when a child uses the same sound or combination of sounds for the same item over and over again. When “real words” emerge, a child may use the same sounds together to represent different things. For instance, your baby may say “buh” for ball, bubble, and bottle

Stage 5 – Variegated Babbling

From ten months through to baby’s first birthday, baby starts using what we call ‘variegated babbling’ – a fancy way of saying instead of repeating the same vowels and consonants while they babble, we now hear combinations of different vowels and consonants in longer strings of sounds. It’s not strange to hear what we start to call “jargon” – vocalizations that create verbalizations like bameeguh or teekati

At this stage, your baby’s chatter sounds much more adult-like, as they use rising and falling inflections that sound like questions or exclamations. According to research he most commonly used sounds at this time are /h, d, b, m, t, g, s, w, n, k, j, p/.

This is the stage when I encourage parents to reeaaaalllly listen to the sounds and sound combinations their baby is using, especially as it relates to the context of the environment. Babies will shape and form closer and closer approximations to “real words”, reinforced by parents who repeat the attempts at words back, giving the child a signal that they were on to the right sounds to use in that context. Click here for a Ted Talk video that provides a beautiful and goosebump-inducing job of demonstrating “The Birth of a Word”. 


“So, what can I do to help my baby learn to talk?”

Get close to your baby’s face when they are alert, content, and ‘chatty’. 

Observe your baby, what they’re interested in, and the sounds they make. 

Do your best to imitate the sounds your baby is making…then WAIT. 

Be attentive, enthusiastic, and fun! 

Talk about your day – become a narrator of everything you and your baby do during their waking hours. Research tells us hearing more words, even as newborns, will help improve language outcomes for children by age three. 

Come back here to soon for an upcoming post, where I will break down the many speech and language development strategies you can easily use throughout your day. 

In the meantime, follow us on Instagram, and Facebook for more great tips, tricks, and information. 

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